How many times have you washed your hands in a public bathroom and searched in vain for a paper towel dispenser? Who wants to wait around while some electronic gizmo on the wall blows lukewarm air on your clammy hands. So you grab a piece of toilet paper in an effort to mimic the paper towel that should have been there. Not a great option given that later someone might just point to a piece of white globby paper plastered to your wrist. Why should the paper towel dispenser have been there? For the simple reason that paper is a better way to dry your hands than blowing air. Surprised? I get the whole “environmental footprint” thing. Yeah, I know all about the need to use less, recycle more and “go green” whenever possible. And the financial argument? Completely understandable, especially when manufacturers of hand dryers argue that air drying can cut costs by as much as 99.5%. But there’s a whole other issue that needs to be examined when you’re dealing with bathrooms and hand washing. Hygiene. Is there a difference between the air dryer and the paper towel? Does one do a better job than the other when it comes to a matter of health?
The answer: Yes. And it’s all about those little buggers we call bacteria. A review of twelve different studies leaves me reaching for the towel instead of the dryer. Dryers just do not do a great job. Granted, this is often the fault of the individual who isn’t willing to stand there long enough for the dryer to eliminate bacteria. Hands that are left wet are likely to lead to cross-contamination. Touch the door handle, and you’ve left your mark behind. A recent episode of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters also sought to either prove or dispel the “drying your hands with a hand drier is less sanitary than using a paper towel” myth. And what they found was…well, rather grimy. 16 subjects had their hands swabbed three times: once after going to the bathroom, once after washing their hands, and once after drying them. The experiment was performed twice: the first time with the air dryer; the second, with the paper towel. And the results were significant. When the subjects dried their hands with the air dryer, the bacterial load was reduced by 23%. The paper towels, on the other hand, reduced the bacteria by 71%, almost three times as much! Once they were on this bathroom kick, the mythbusters decided to go a little further, taking a look at whether the number of bacteria present in the bathroom environment differed based on having used an air dryer or paper towel. And again, the results were downright dirty. There were a total of forty-one colonies of bacteria around the air drier as compared to a total of three around the paper towel dispenser. So the findings are clear and the results are in, and no, they’re not pretty. If you go by the science, dryers are out, paper towels are in. But don’t forget about washing properly. Use soap and sing a stanza of Happy Birthday! Yup, that’s how long it takes to wash your hands of bacteria.